Your Brain on Art (Part 1 of 2) – Setting the Stage

  • September 19, 2016
  • By Edgar Cardenas, PhD     

Introduction  and Overview

About the Event

Full disclosure, I’m not a neuroscientist; I am, however,  a social/behavioral scientist and artist whose research focuses on creativity and art-science intersections. So when I learned about the 2016 International Conference on Mobile Brain-Body Imaging (MoBI) and the Neuroscience of Art, Innovation and Creativity (full schedule here),  hosted by the University of Houston on July 24-27, I knew some things would be out of my area of expertise, but considered it a great opportunity to get different perspectives on creativity and art-science research.

The conference covered multiple topics including the:

  • Study of aesthetic experience;
  • Intersections of art and science;
  • Evaluation and enhancement of creativity; and
  • Development of  technologies for exploring the above phenomena,

My Role

My attendance to this event was only possible due to being awarded a grant for the Doctoral/Postdoctoral Consortium*. As part of this grant I, along with a team of four others, were tasked with providing a summary and reflection of the first panel presentation titled, “How the creative arts and aesthetic experiences engage the human mind and promote creativity and innovation?”

Panel Overview

The panelists for this session were:

Anjan Chatterjee (Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia, PA)

Arne Dietrich (American University of Beirut, Lebanon)

Sha Xin Wei (Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ)

Gil Weinberg (Georgia Tech, Atlanta, GA)

Serendipitously, this panel – and its ensuing question and answer session – framed the underlying discussions that would unfold over the course of the conference. As such, I will pivot to the questions raised through these discussions around the intersections of art, neuroscience, and creativity, rather than cover the content of the conference in a linear fashion. To elaborate, the topics that arose were: (a) how the study of aesthetics in neuroscience is evolving and should evolve, (b) how are we to conceptualize where creativity is located in the brain, (c) what should we classify as a creative act, and (5) should the scale of neurological analysis, typically framed as electrical activity in or blood flow through the brain,  be revisited and potentially expanded to the corporeal. In part 1 of Your Brain on Art, I will cover how these four speakers laid the groundwork for the conference discussions and in part 2 I will delve deeper into what this means for art-science collaborations.

The Panelists

Anjan Chatterjee: The Aesthetic Brain

Anjan Chatterjee, Chair of Neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital, began the conference by providing context for  neuroaesthetics studies. He noted that neuroimaging techniques provide correlational data and when used in isolation cannot be counted on to provide any causal inferences about neural function. He further went on to distinguish differences between descriptive and experimental neuroaesthetics. The clearest definition of “descriptive neuroaesthetics,” gleaned from Chatterjee and Vartanian (2016), is “scholarship that applies principles of psychology and neuroscience to aesthetic concerns. This approach contrasts with experimental aesthetics, which tests hypotheses using experimental methods” (p. 184). He further framed a methodology, and the discussion, in context of ‘aesthetic experience’ by providing an aesthetic triad model (see figure one); one that accounts for the biological, psychological, and epistemological. One research finding he shared, which he viewed as a particularly significant contribution to the field, was the ability to measure the influence of arts training on the viewer’s aesthetic experience through self-reported viewer ratings as well as through eye tracking. He concluded by opening a door to future study and exploration through drawing attention to the fact that beauty – a thoroughly researched topic in neuroaesthetics – is not the only aesthetic experience that exists and that horror, melancholy, and the sublime, equally significant aesthetic experiences, have received little attention.


Figure One: Aesthetic Triad Model

To learn more about the content discussed in this talk, I recommend reading Chatterjee and Vartanian (2016) – Neuroscience of Aesthetics.

Arne Dietrich: The Creative Brain

Arne Dietrich, Professor of Psychology, focused his presentation on parsing apart the misconception that creativity is localized in a particular area of the brain. He took aim at the right brain-left brain dichotomy, the idea that divergent thinking is synonymous with creativity, as well as the idea that creativity is a ‘singular’ thing. To elaborate, he stated that, for creativity to be realized,  a fully integrated and distributed phenomena must take place and it requires all parts of the brain to “contribute.” He coins this  the “Vaudeville Conception” of creativity – yes, in reference to Vaudeville genre theatrical performances, which functions as a metaphor for the variety of skills and talents necessary for success. Additionally, his conceptualization of creativity is grounded in an evolutionary framework, and he further noted that cultural production – where we might assume the arts are positioned – is evolutionary as well. He explained that we pass on ‘cultural units’ that lead to gradual and cumulative changes over time. Given the Vaudeville Conception and the evolutionary nature of creativity,  he drew forth the conclusion that the current neuroimaging paradigm for identifying neuromechanisms of creativity is lacking and, furthermore, theoretically incoherent. In response, he proposed a reconceptualization of the brain as a ‘prediction machine’ that produces simulations based on current stored information and variations on the recombination of that information. He further speculated that if creative units are, in fact, built through cultural knowledge that is iterated in an evolutionary sense, are there other mechanisms that can be studied? More specifically, can we perform this computationally? If so, computational modeling would allow for more rapid iterations of predictive processing than current cultural evolutionary methods.

Sha Xin Wei: The Aesthetic-Corporeal Experience

Sha Xin Wei, Director of the School of Arts, Media + Engineering at Arizona State University, rescales the unit of measure, from the brain to the body and potentially bodies. Is he extending? Is neuroscience not about neural mechanisms that are expressed in particular behaviors or sensations? Well, Xin Wei is also not a neuroscientist, he’s trained in mathematics and science and technology with a research focus in topological media, and may be asking the more fundamental question of what is the proper unit of measure to most accurately express particular human behaviors and sensations – especially since the arts can be so kinesthetically oriented. He posited that all manner of human phenomena is not only neural but also corporeal.  This is not to say that he is asking for a more loose measure, he takes accuracy seriously and uses the latest in sensor technology to capture the micro-movements of the body in an effort to measure signals in small temporal and spatial slices.

Gil Weinberg: Can Robots be Creative?

Gil Weinberg, Director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, presentation focused his research on testing the idea of creative machines. While I could use words to describe how his robot is musically creative, I believe his Ted-Ed animated video provides a clearer understanding.

In conjunction with  Arne Dietrich’s framework for creativity, Gil’s work surfaces an interesting idea, and dilemma, for how we define creativity. His robot first ingested large amounts of musical information, including what is ‘good’ music, and then was able to produce variations based on what it ‘knows’. The robot could participate in a ‘call and response’ by listening to one musician play and then it would play back to the musician in a way that would include it’s own addition and improvisation. The challenging question this research reveals is: If a robot can provide iterations that are informed, is it being creative?

Next Up

There you have it – a foundational understanding of the four panelists’ presentations. As I mentioned previously, this panel, and the discussions that followed, provided critical scaffolding for discussions that would emerge throughout the conference on interdisciplinary collaborations around understanding creativity. Over the following three days artists and scientists grappled with the intersections of art and science, what was meant by creativity, how they could go about working together, and how were ideas and outcomes validated in these spaces. This, and more on beauty, why artists and scientists argue, and the value of these intersections in part 2 of Your Brain on Art.  

*This work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation Award No. IIS 1631608, The University of Houston College College of Engineering.

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